Churches find place in pluralistic and secularist Sweden

Sweden’s reputation as a leader in secularization trends still holds, though it seems less monolithic when looked at regionally, according to an article by Paul Glader on the website Religion Unplugged (August 11). The article focuses on evangelical and Pentecostal churches and the innovative methods they have adopted to reach secular Swedes, but also reports on the spread of a Swedish Bible Belt across the country, where megachurches are present. Glader writes that the Swedish Bible Belt is not only limited to historic areas such as Jönköping County but has also branched out “via Sjuhäradsbygden in southern Västergötland toward Gothenburg (Göteborg), and the Gothenburg archipelago has an offshoot to the west, south toward the Växjö area, toward Skåne’s Örkelljunga and Hässleholm.” While the whole of the Småland region is often mistakenly assumed to be part of the Bible Belt, it is more like a set of “Bible buttons,” with pockets of evangelical faith interspersed with areas that have remained state-church dominated. Outside these “Bible buttons,” Muslim communities are growing quickly, while traditional free churches are showing signs of membership loss; the Pentecostal churches had a slight decrease of 546 members since 2017. The Catholic Church is actually the one growing the fastest in Sweden, followed by the Orthodox churches. The Catholic Church gained 7,285 members since 2017, with 126,286 total members in Sweden. The Macedonian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, and Romanian Orthodox churches all grew to total 32,455 members.

Filadelfia church in Stockholm (© 2010 Haxpett | Wikimedia Commons).

By contrast, the Church of Sweden had roughly 5.6 million members in 2021 but had declined by 365,301 members since 2017. Among Muslims, the United Islamic Societies nearly doubled from less than 15,000 members in 2017 to 30,000 members in 2021. Another Sunni Muslim community called the Islamic Cultural Union in Sweden grew from 10,755 members in 2017 to 18,557 members in 2021. The Islamic Shia Communities have grown to 36,774 members in 2021. Both free and Lutheran churches that engage with neighbors, young families, and seniors show growth. Journalist Inger Alestig said that it is quite normal for churches to have cafes open to the public and located in city centers where people pass by. They do not see those offerings as particularly innovative. They noted that, just as in America, when free churches close in central urban areas their buildings are sometimes turned into hotels or homes. Alestig said some churches are also merging in parts of Sweden. In rural parts of Sweden, schools and shops might close but the local church often remains and “becomes the place where people can meet.” And in those parts of Sweden, “the church and the priest are central to peoples’ well-being, and so it becomes relevant in the life of society.” With regard to politics, observers are not finding that the populist and Christian nationalist parties, such as Sverigedemocraterna (the Swedish Democrats), are having a huge appeal among evangelicals, although the new party is trying to recruit evangelical voters and is “perhaps winning a few of them on culture war issues such as abortion, stronger national defense and limited immigration,” Jacob Rudenstrand of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance said.

(Religion Unplugged,